A foster and adoptive parent writes:
I would like to know whether for an African-American child growing up in a white family–even if surrounded by other African American people–race would become THE issue, THE main source of identity. Do you think this is frequent?
I am Eastern-European, married to a white American. We have foster children of all races, and are open to adopt the one that might need us. Since we have one African-American child right now, I would like to know more about how to help him find his identity within, and also beyond, race.
As an immigrant, I have experienced a certain amount of prejudice in America, and often have been told about my country of origin, rather than asked. I have a background in cross-cultural studies and a cross-cultural marriage. I know how important race, culture, nationality are for one’s identity. At the same time, I have learned that there are deeper sources of identity (relationship with God/universe, belonging to humankind) that have to support the other elements.
When I came to this country, due to the fact that my country was viewed in a stereotyped way, I tended to over assert my nationality, make it the main source of my identity. I wonder if this could also happen to a black child growing up in a white family, that he would make his race the main and only source of identity. And if yes, how could I help him gain perspective? (I was an adult by the time I had to face this, and regained my healthy sense of identity by focusing on my faith, on my career and keeping my nationality in its hopefully right place–a very important one!).
Michelle Johnson Answers:
I believe there is always more parents can do to reinforce the positive cultural heritage of their children. For you as an Eastern European, you have experienced prejudice here based on your country of origin. The main difference between you and your children of color is that you most likely look like our majority culture. If you have an accent, this changes when you speak. Your child is Black forever and will be judged first for this fact in most situations, and with most people, either in positive or negative ways. Your choice to over-emphasize your roots should definitely be passed to your children. Short of teaching your child to hate people because they physically mirror the culture with more power, you can not go wrong in this endeavor.
Your son is already disliked by some, and will be feared by others as he grows into manhood. Some people may have desires to hurt him which they either follow through upon or not. Honestly preparing your son for these facts is a necessary component in your parenting. To do less is to bring in question his ability to survive emotionally and physically in our racist culture. He needs Black male role models from day 1, and women as well to see appropriate interactions. He needs kids like him so as not to feel all alone in a White world. He needs to understand the history of maltreatment of Black men in this society, and how to combat it on his own behalf just as you advocate from your position.
Race will always be a central issue in his life, even if surrounded by Blacks; as long as there is injustice. Often in transracial adoptions, Black boys learn early on how to make White people feel safe around them, and therefore relinquish those characteristics of being Black they perceive others to be uncomfortable with. This is a common option often endorsed silently if not verbally by many parents. This however often includes giving up pieces of or, in some cases, the entirety of a birth culture rich in tradition and filled with things to be proud of. I am always saddened when I see this happen, for it is often not based on choice, but by a forced necessity of fitting in. You are already a long way down the right road. Your example of retaining and defending your culture is a great way of living by example. Your job is to help your son by doing the same and, as you mentioned, making sure that he has a world view which includes the reality, appreciation, and celebration of all the wonderful people and cultures who now call our nation home.
Continued success along this exciting cultural journey!!
John Raible answers:
It sounds like you are asking the right kinds of questions, which indicates your concern for addressing prejudice and discrimination head on.
While you have not identified yourself as white, I suspect that in the US racial context, other people see you, as well as your husband, as white, even though you are, as you say, an immigrant. You are right in guessing that your African American child will eventually feel a need to claim a proud identity for him or herself, particularly in the face of racism. If society still insists on making a big deal of race, and attributes negative characteristics to those of us labeled as black, then it is understandable that black people in reaction will assert that there is nothing wrong with being black, and that it is, in fact, something to be proud of. Hence, as you say, blackness may well become a main source of identity for your child. But identity– black, brown, European, American– is not something you can give to your child. Rather, identity develops over time through our identifications with others, particularly those we are drawn to as role models. In other words, identity is not a noun, but a verb. For your African American child to learn to identify positively with his or her blackness, the child will need to be around different African American people, kids as well as adults.
Consistent exposure to other black people while he or she grows up is a gift you, as white parents, can provide. Your challenge may become finding points of access into black families and community networks so that all of the members of your multiracial family can learn to feel comfortable in multiracial social situations. Start with the black friends you hopefully already have. Let them know that you are serious about exposing your children to African American culture. I’m sure some of them will be more than willing to offer assistance.
Good luck! You’re on your way to an exciting lifelong adventure!